Wednesday, April 25, 2007

It took new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seven months to cross the Pacific, but both U.S. and Japanese officials predict a relatively friction-free summit when President Bush hosts the Japanese leader at a private White House dinner tonight and a stay at Camp David tomorrow.

Trade, China and the deal to end North Korea’s nuclear program are among the issues likely to dominate Mr. Abe’s first visit to Washington since taking office in September, but it is the timing of the visit, not the substance, that has raised eyebrows in both countries.

Previous Japanese prime ministers, including Mr. Abe’s flamboyant predecessor Junichiro Koizumi, routinely visited Washington almost immediately after taking power — a symbol of the importance of the U.S. security alliance to Tokyo.

Mr. Abe, by contrast, traveled first to China and South Korea a month after his election, two neighbors and trading partners that had testy ties to the Koizumi government.

Mr. Abe, who came to power with a reputation as a conservative nationalist, told reporters in Tokyo that the belated U.S. trip was a sign of the “maturity” of the bilateral relationship.

“It is no longer an age where we need to make an immediate visit to the United States after the establishment of a new government,” he said.

Still, the trip’s timing was one more symbol of the shifting balance of interests in northeast Asia. Japan’s Finance Ministry announced yesterday that bilateral trade with China for the 12 months ending March 31 surpassed U.S.-Japan trade for the first time since World War II.

A senior Japanese government official, briefing U.S. reporters on background yesterday, noted that Mr. Abe and Mr. Bush had a lengthy meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific economic summit in Hanoi in November. Mr. Abe, a longtime top Cabinet aide and former foreign minister, also had met Mr. Bush and other top U.S. officials long before becoming prime minister.

“There was no reason he had to hastily build up a personal relationship with President Bush, because he had already done that,” the official said.

North Korea may prove the most difficult diplomatic issue to finesse, as the United States is pressing for progress on the Feb. 13 six-nation deal to end Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs.

But Mr. Abe faces intense political pressure at home over the issue of Japanese nationals abducted and being held by North Korea, and has refused to contribute to aid programs Pyongyang has demanded as one price for its cooperation. The first Japan-North Korea bargaining session last month produced no progress.

Mr. Abe may face questions on a visit to Capitol Hill today over his remarks last month seeming to call into question past Japanese official apologies on the issue of “comfort women” — Korean and other women coerced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II.

The new prime minister has vowed to boost the country’s defense profile, but the Japanese official said yesterday Mr. Abe did not plan to press Mr. Bush to sell Japan the F-22 Raptor stealth jet. Some in the U.S. government have argued against the sale, fearing it could antagonize China.

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